I couldn’t get my brain to shut off last night. It was plagued by thoughts of time. Not merely because I had this Hootie and the Blowfish song stuck in my head, but also because I felt compelled to answer for my time away from my paying work. I felt compelled to have answers to the questions that I posed last week, and in truth, I simply don’t have them.
I, and perhaps we, like to think that it is the world that puts strictures on us about when we need to achieve certain things. There is probably some truth in this. We are adulated for being the youngest to accomplish something, when we skip a grade we are ‘accelerated.’ Who wouldn’t think of precocious as a positive term? In truth, though, just as Victor Frankl pointed out, the last thing that is stripped from us is choice. As a concentration camp victim, he pointed out that even if a gun was pointed at his head he had the ability to choose how he would feel about the man pointing it at him.
In this then, I am culpable, I have chosen to have a relationship with time that is unhealthy. If I am honest, I feel like it is a disembodied presence constantly looking over my shoulder and asking me if I have done something fast enough, if I have learned enough, if what I have done is really worth ‘my’ time.
With this in mind, I am not certain that it would be productive to return to the questions that plague me from last week, it may be more useful for me to look into this disembodied presence, figure out what I know about it, and see if I can get the space from it that I need to answer the questions I need to answer. Like and unnerving school teacher, it is very difficult to do your tasks when someone is looking over your shoulder implying that you may have done them incorrectly.
So here is my about-face, my staring at the disembodied presence of time to understand why it so plagues me.
The Physics of Time
Time is one of the dimensions we have access to, the dimension in which action-reaction is possible. If we are to believe Stephen Hawking in his book, ‘A Brief History of Time’ then it is indelibly linked to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the law of entropy. Most simply, this states that without any external power source everything tends toward disorder. In every energy transformation, chemical to kinetic, kinetic to nuclear, etc, there is some loss of heat/increase in chaos. He postulates that the reason time has an ‘arrow,’ the reason that we can only access it as the action-reaction dimension and not the inverse, the reaction-action this that this is the direction of entropy. Though it has been almost eight years since I read the book, I believe that he also postulated that if we were to have a strange backward universe where everything tended towards order, that the denizens thereof would still need to experience the world in the direction of increasing entropy. Whether true or not, I find the connection of the arrow of time to entropy to be viscerally satisfying. As I mentioned in my last post, we are, every living fiber of our being, fighting against not just entropy, but time itself if the two are indelibly linked. Our cells are constantly expending energy to fight back against entropy, and the increasing disorder that they themselves are creating by converting ATP to useful energy. If ever there were a cosmic joke it is this, we are all like Sisyphus, continually rolling our stones up the hill only to find the escarpment increasing by virtue of our efforts, eventually being crushed by our efforts. This collapse has not happened in a complete way on earth yet, but the logic is inexorable. We build, the energy required to build creates wasted heat, disorder, in the extant capital is degraded, we must rebuild, losing more heat, only with constantly increasing energy demands can we both maintain the existent capital and create new things. Is it any wonder, then that we are the apex species on the planet, are digging, burning, collecting, and colliding to find more energy. We are playing God with one another, and with the finite resources at our disposal. Some cosmologists have even postulated that this is the reason we cannot see advanced alien worlds. Since the laws of physics apply to them as much as to us, to become truly ‘advanced’ they would not be able to settle for capturing the limited amount of electro-magnetic energy that falls on the face of their planet, they would need to capture all of the energy from the star. They would shroud the entire star, absorb all of the energy that it creates, and we, the few lonely ones on our green and blue life-raft would have one less light to guide us. We know that there is a great deal of unaccounted for mass from the big bang, perhaps it is enshrouded here. Our obsession with time/entropy is thus destined to leave us alone, and perhaps, lonely.
Physics tells us one more thing about time, that in it’s broadest sense it is linked to light. In fact, modern physicists using the M,K,S system define the S (seconds) in terms of light. Though I cannot recall the number of off the top of my head, it is something like the time that it takes for a photon of light to cover 3.02×10^8m in a vacuum. Which may seem abstract, but with a few spinning mirrors, some division, and some relatively crude instruments, it is measurable. The meters, if you are interested, are also now defined by light, again, off the top of my head it’s something like 231 wavelengths of light emitted from a krypton laser. This is not merely a strange convention, it is actually ‘true’ to the best of our experimental knowledge, it cannot be otherwise. Time is a metronome that is not stable, but rather, it’s beat is tied to the speed you are moving. As you approach the speed of light time starts to dilate. You experience a world that is slower from the perspective of those you left behind, and they experience a world that is faster from your perspective. If you hopped on spaceship, detonated a series of nuclear blasts behind yourself to catapult yourself up to 99.99% of the speed of light, and then reversed course detonating another series of nuclear blasts behind yourself and came back to the Earth, then in the year or so that it would take you to do this without dying, you would find that the Earth you returned to would be very changed. That the people you return to would not be on the same clock as you, but would have experienced years of absence for your single year. You may be the first person able to meet his own great, great, great, great, great, great grandchildren. How does this link to my sleepless connection to time. Not well except in the poetic sense at this point, but perhaps it will become increasingly practical. In the poetic sense, our Western struggle to obtain knowledge is often called en’light’enment, our ability to perceive is incredibly tied to our sense of sight. Most of the information we consciously process is by virtue of electro-magnetic radiation. ‘Lower’ forms of life, like plants are blind. They merely hope that where their seeds fall will be good, and do not attempt to sense or see what is in coming. Light is by far the the fastest way to send and receive information, and there can be nothing faster. Is it any wonder that we increasingly depending on fiber-optic backbones for our information transmission? Eventually, it may be more efficient to conduct all of our processing/thinking in centralized data centers and then use these light-pipes to push the information to where it needs to go without depending on local, inefficient processors that generate uncapturable waste heat. Perhaps this will be the ultimate fate of the Bitcoin miners. Once we get to this point, then the logic really becomes more powerful. As we suck in the ‘vast’ corpus of knowledge, process it, potentially use machine learning algorithms like neural networks to process it to find patterns that we didn’t know existed there will be another cap on our progress–you guessed it–the speed of light. Parallel processing of information will be fundamentally restricted by the speed at which calculations can be exchanged. So not only are we limited by energy, and entropy, but we are limited by the cosmic speed limit, light, and its companion, distance. We cannot exceed it. If we were to try to do clever things like calculate the unexplained wobbles of our solar system to predict the next asteroid-cum-meteorite that intends to wipe us out like the KT explosion wiped out the dinosaurs, then our efforts to protect ourselves would be hobbled by the physical limits of our technology. Not to mention allowing our global neural network to calculate the likelihood and magnitude of events that only it could think up. Once we did understand the unyielding path of the next asteroid that we couldn’t divert, what would we do?
We just can’t seem to escape physics. Like Sisyphus, as we continue to push our boundaries we create the conditions for the rock to roll back onto us.
The personal relationship to time
My personal relationship to time. It has probably left me wanting in three ways. The past, the present and the future.
The past can be beautiful thing. It allows us to tell ourselves stories about how we got to where we are, why we are there, and informs our likes/dislikes. These can sustain us during times where there is a large gap between our desires and reality. I remember being a ‘knob’ at The Citadel. I was already a Marine then, and I had some conception of the difference between tough, realistic, training, and abuse. My cadet company, ‘F Troop’ had precious little of the former, and excessive amounts of the latter. Men beating, starving, and forcing other men to abuse each other and themselves seemed pointless to me. For my failure to comply I didn’t have a single one of my company-mates speak to me for nine months. I was never ‘recognized’ as part of the company by the upper-class-men. In some way, ironically, I was never part of the system, though I was a company commander, graduated Sigma Cum Laude, was part of the honors program. I chose at that time to view myself retrospectively, as a Marine, as an officer-in-training, as a farm-boy with decent values. I chose to live in the past when my body was in the present.
Unfortunately, the past plagues me too. I fondly remember the days when I was a collegiate decathlete, and I ran my mile in just over four minutes. When I could hurl a javelin, discus, shot put, great distances. Days when I could pole vault, high jump, and long jump all while practicing martial arts at night. I miss the time that my body was a ‘V’ shaped, and when I didn’t have to write something like this while lying on my back with a massager on my foot because I pushed myself too hard for too long in training and in war. I can’t help but feel that I want those days back.
So that’s the past, a succor in bad times and a pain in the good ones. I don’t feel like time’s disembodied presence lives there for me except perhaps in the phrase ‘to whom much is given, much is expected,’ and I have been given a great deal. That is at least one phrase that it whispers which tells me I must go on because I have come so far. I know this is logically the sunk-cost fallacy, but my neocorex has yet to convince my limbic brain of this…
What about living in the present? This seems to be the direction of our age. People, especially at Google, are constantly trying to be ‘present’ to avoid distractions and feel the moment. I have been in the present at times. On convoys, on patrol, nothing focuses the mind on the present like potentially being bereft of it. I certainly struggle with it now. My wife cleverly challenged me to do ‘nothing’ with some of these days off to just see how I would do. I must admit, I suck at it. I remember my Honor’s Program counselor, Dr Rhodes, advising me prior to the Rhode’s Scholarship (no relation) interviews that Rhodes Scholars tend to read a great deal, and are not as experiential. He told me that they would do something like hike the Appalachian trail and read 10 books about it, but he suspected that I was more of the ‘doing’ type, that I would hike 10 trails and read one book. I think that he was correct. What so plagues me about the present, I wonder? I suspect that it is over-contextualization. I will come back to this in a moment.
The future, like the past, can cause great pain or great happiness. It can cause pain if we believe that it will or may be meaningfully different from the way things are, and we like the way things are. Conversely, it can cause relief if we believe that things will be materially better than the way they are by whatever yardstick you use. I generally believe, probably incorrectly, that the future is a function of the present, that the world is rational, and that we have the power to bring about a better future than we have today through our exertions. Why is this probably incorrect? It’s probably incorrect because a great number of well-meaning people have come before me and the world is still pretty messed up. It is probably incorrect because the limits of my power to build are pretty tremendous. At one point, I could rain fire down from heaven, and held the fate of other mortals under my trigger finger. Genghis Khan did the same, and in the same place as I did. This was a negative power, the power to destroy what others had made. It’s not fair, but here is where entropy works against us. It is always easier to destroy than to build. The fact is, the area I fought in in Afghanistan was once called ‘little America.’ It was created by well-meaning USAID folks who diverted the Helmand river for irrigation and to create a hydroelectric dam. The same people who brought us the Tennessee Valley Authority brought us the most productive region for growing poppies that the world had ever seen. Those were converted into the drugs paid for by the Europeans who were desperate to escape their lives, this bought the guns and bombs that killed Marines and civilians I was there with. Oh and they inadvertently drained the lakes in Iran, where a functioning Persian society was depending on them. What a sad object lesson for the well-meaning.
No one could reasonably expect this. I don’t condemn the USAID of the 1950s for this, it merely points to my point that it seems unlikely that I will be able to make a lasting positive difference in the world.
Still, time’s disembodied voice plagues me with lies ‘you are different, you are special, you will build a tower so high that you will not be forgotten.’ Like a modern day tower of Babel, I often silently, an now vocally wish merely to make something significant. The noise that I hear bellowing from this nonexistent voice is the peal to start assembling the mud bricks because the tower will not build itself and my own mortality is hanging over my head. I fear death not for pain, or because of what lies beyond, but because I am afraid that I will run out of time to do this thing, this significant thing that will defeat it. Like there is a cosmic coach with a stopwatch who will tell me, no matter how hard I pull the earth underneath me that it just wasn’t fast enough, and there is no prize at all for losing the race.
Here is the problem, if I expand the frame of reference long enough I must realize that nothing I will build in my lifetime will last. Eventually, we know that the sun will expand and consume the inner solar system, becoming a red giant and exhausting its fuel. The special arrangements of the star-stuff we already are will eventually be completely immolated. Even if we can escape this star system, the universe seems to be expanding at an ever-increasing rate, and will likely end in a big cool, unless some as-yet undiscovered cosmological constant holds us in equilibrium. Perhaps by then our computation power will be so overwhelming and the seeming randomness of the quantum world will be so quantified that our descendants can run the clock backwards and recreate our lives. This will be entertainment since they will live in a literally dark universe as the stars wink out and the galaxies are so red-shifted that they can no longer be seen in a spectrum that we appreciate. Unfortunately, that seems unlikely because the size of the computer required would duplicate the size of the whole universe it was trying to imitate (including itself, and the map of itself, in an infinite regress).
Therein lies the choice, nihilism, self-delusion, or faith. Nihilism in the knowledge that it will never amount to anything, self-delusion to work and hope that you are special.
Ahh, there, I’ve found it. I have found the lie that keeps me awake.
I suspect that I am a man of great faith in the wrong things. I have faith that I will be different, that my tower will be different, that despite my knowledge of the world, that I can find significance through my exertions. This is the lie that the voice tells me. Like Boxer in Animal Farm:
Napoleon, for me, is this disembodied voice. This is why I can’t live in the now. This is why I keep checking the clock to see how long this has taken me to write. Even now it tells me that even if the probability is low the consequences are high, and I should try to thread the needle. Any other lies?…? No it seems it has run out for now. I am sure that there will be more.
What is that? Not silence, there is still something there. What is it? There is something beyond this din, there is something still and small, another voice. I can’t hear it yet. Perhaps now I will have the ears to hear and the eyes to see. Though I suspect I will need to fight this significance lie more, but I am starting to see it.
Please, tell me what you thought before reading this, and let me know if this changed your mind.